Nineteen-year-old Xiang Xiaohan, from Hunan Province in China, wanted the government to recognize a gay rights organization he set up in 2009 to help gay people like him. It’s called the Same-Sex Love Assistance Network. Instead of at least having his proposal fairly adjudicated, he says the local Hunan government not only refused but thought to give Xiang a lesson in morality.
The BBC quotes the letter of refusal as saying that homosexuality has no place in Chinese traditional culture and nor is it conducive to “the building of spiritual civilization.”
This slogan is a particular favorite among the present Chinese Communist government, indicating that the Hunan Province authorities clearly believed they were reciting the Party line. China no longer criminalizes homosexuality and hasn’t done so since 1997, but it has a kind of far reaching Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy which often means any and all public shows of support for LGBT rights are banned and censored. That makes what Xiang did next even more extraordinary.
Xiang has filed a defamation lawsuit in the provincial capital, Changsha, demanding that the Hunan government, and by extension the Chinese government, because to criticize one arm is to criticize the whole, apologize over its dehumanization and failure to honor Xiang’s rights. Yet, he’s not wanting the apology for just himself. ”I believe what the government said defames the reputation of the gay and lesbian community in China, and I want them to issue a written apology.” Xiang also wants his campaign organization to go forward unhindered by the local government.
To be clear, while Xiang does appear to have standing, it’s unlikely the lawsuit will prevail. In fact, a Changsha court has already ruled against Xiang, saying that the letter didn’t amount to defamation and instead was “administrative guidance.” Despite this, Xiang hopes to take the case as far as he is able because he wants to fight what he perceives as the potential precedent the letter could set.
“If we can’t force the civil affairs department of the Hunan government to withdraw what it said on homosexuality, then other government bodies would likely follow its example, and this would cause irreparable psychological damage to gay and lesbian people,” Xiang is quoted by the BBC. “If gay and lesbian people have no place in China’s traditional culture, how can you encourage them to pursue the [Chinese] Dream?”
Despite the fact that the courts at this juncture appear unlikely to risk the ire of the presiding Communist Party and rule against the government, something rather surprising has come out of Xiang’s story. The state run news organization Xinhua, which is regarded by most as the mouthpiece of the government, decided to run a detailed news story on Xiang’s case. Several other news agencies have also reportedly taken on the story.
The very fact that Xiang received a reply from the Hunan government has also been marked as progress. Previously, it was likely that Xiang’s request to elevate his small group to NGO status would have simply gone unanswered. Yet the Hunan government thought that, at the very least, Xiang’s initiative needed a reply.
In China, attitudes to homosexuality have changed in recent years and there is now a movement toward acceptance. In fact, a growing number of people, including the parents of LGBT kids, are speaking out for greater recognition of LGBT rights. Still, several problems remain. China affords very little nondiscrimination protections to LGBT people, LGBTs are often censored from media reports and no form of partnership recognition or joint adoption exists in China. In fact, men and women are often heavily pressured to marry, leading to them enter into marriages knowing that they are in fact gay and then having to live a double life. There are also serious concerns about China’s lack of willingness to deal with clinics offering so-called gay conversion therapy, which are still on record as offering shock therapy treatments.
Yet Xiang’s brave stand reminds us that change is possible if people are willing to speak out. While Xiang has said that he doesn’t expect to win this fight, he will continue alongside his LGBT brothers and sisters until the fight is won, however long that takes.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.